We represented a man who had been employed with the same plant for over 23 years as maintenance worker. He was severely injured when a compactor with an internal auger became jammed. This was a fiber compactor that took fibers from the surrounding air and compacted them into solid materials.
The manufacturer recognized that the machine would periodically become jammed or choked with the solid fibers. The manufacturer instructed that when the machine became jammed, the maintenance workers should ensure that the auger was at a standstill and then reach into the machine by hand and remove the jammed materials. The only access panel to the machine was located some nine feet off the ground, and a few inches from the wall.
The testimony in the case was that you could not actually see into the access panel to remove the jammed materials, so a worker removing the jam had to reach in blindly and feel around to remove it.
Unfortunately, this particular fiber compactor jammed on a frequent basis. In fact, the plant supervisor testified that the compactor choked an “abnormally high amount.” The manufacturer instructed that when these frequent jams occurred, the worker should turn the key switch to reverse or repair mode. When that key is turned, the machine is not supposed to be able to move forward. This is important because when the machine moves in reverse, the auger pushes the hand up and out. In forward, the auger has the ability to cause significant personal injury including severing a limb.
Our client came to work on a January morning and was notified of a jam in the fiber compactor. As instructed by the manufacturer, he turned the key switch to reverse or repair mode in order to lock out the machine. He climbed up onto a step ladder and reached blindly into the access panel to try to remove the jam. He was able to remove part of the jam and then got back down off the ladder and turned the key to forward to see if the compactor would run. It would not. He then turned the key switch to the repair or reverse mode and again attempted to remove the jam. He repeated these steps a total of three times.
We filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer and seller of the product. Because the manufacturer was a German corporation, we had to go through the Hague Convention to serve the lawsuit on the defendant manufacturer. Our lawsuit claimed that the fiber compactor was defective and unreasonably dangerous because it lacked an interlocked guard. The defendants claimed that an interlocked guard was not necessary because the compactor came with a “fixed” guard. The problem was that in order to remove the jams from the compactor, the fixed guard had to be removed, leaving no guard at all.
Our expert testified that a fixed guard is impracticable in a case where it must be removed many times during a shift to do the maintenance work. He testified that when, as in this case, the frequency of jams was so high, a reasonably prudent machine manufacturer must install an an interlocked guard rather than a fixed guard. An interlocked guard would have prevented the auger from rotating in any direction while work was being performed. This is especially true when a worker is required to place his hand into the point of operation in order to perform maintenance.
The manufacturer disagreed with our position. The manufacturer argued that the cause of our client’s injury was that he failed to lock out the machine at a remote power source. The defense, of course, was to blame the worker. In most workplace accidents, severe injuries or deaths occur because someone has reached into a machine. Most workers probably believe what they were doing at the time was safe. They may not know all the hazards associated with the design of the machine. A worker may be wrong, but he or she should not have to go home with a disabling injury, especially when there is an economically and technologically feasible design alternative that would have eliminated or reduced the risk of injury or death.
We were able to settle the case on behalf of our client prior to trial.